Family vacations take us out of our comfort zones and daily routines, which can make it hard to travel on a budget. Travel experts share ways to make this challenge slightly easier.

By Mia Taylor
July 01, 2021
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An image of a family packing.
Credit: Getty Images.

Maintaining a budget while traveling with kids is nearly as challenging as visiting a supermarket with little ones in tow. Instead of pleading for that bag of Chips Ahoy! you hadn't planned on purchasing, the requests run the gamut from overpriced souvenirs to all manner of tasty treats and just about any other intriguing or unique item that crosses a child's path (or line of vision).

"Traveling takes us out of our comfort zone and as such, parents are more susceptible to spending money on a whim," says Kirsten Maxwell, founder of the family travel site Kids Are A Trip. "We want to make our kids happy and often find ourselves digging out our wallets and throwing money at a situation instead of keeping a level head and saying no." 

But just as you've learned to reign in the spending during grocery store outings (hopefully), all is not lost when vacationing with kiddos either. The first step, of course, is developing a vacation budget—actually writing it down on paper or creating an electronic version in a budgeting app. No matter which approach you prefer, be sure to allocate money for all of the vacation-related activities and potential expenditures that may be incurred.

Next comes the hard part—sticking to that thoughtfully planned vacation budget once you hit the road. To assist with this challenge, we've rounded up tips from travel industry insiders for actually staying on budget once you and your family are exploration bound.

Live Like a Local

Bunking at a nice hotel, one that includes inviting amenities and activities for all ages, is a wonderful treat. But it can often be quite costly as well, making it hard to vacation on a budget. Curb spending when traveling with family by refraining from hotel hopping. Instead, find one place to stay and stay there longer, says Maxwell.

"Vacation rentals will often offer discounts on longer stays, and by staying in a vacation rental you can save money on meals because you don't have to eat out," says Maxwell. "As an added bonus, rentals often include a washing machine, so you can pack fewer clothes and not have to pay extra money for checked bags."

Avoiding baggage fees is really just one of the savings to be had here. Having access to a washing machine also allows for skipping laundromats or paying a hotel to launder your family's clothing while traveling.

Give Kids a Souvenir and Snack Budget

As a parent, it can be difficult to say no to cute stuffed animals or snow globes that memorialize your trip, not to mention the endless stream of tempting snacks at amusement parks and other entertainment venues. Save yourself money on at least some of these items by setting a souvenir and snack budget for your kids and discussing it with them ahead of time.

"We also try to push souvenir shopping to the last day of our vacation so if it's something they really want, they can purchase it as we head out of town," says Maxwell.

KyAnn Lewis, editor of the family travel website KidTripster, even suggests setting up a separate bank account for your children's spending during vacations.

"Instead of managing their spending money for them, give your kids their own card with a predetermined amount for the trip," says Lewis. "We use Greenlight, a debit card for kids. We like it because it allows some independence for our teen daughter to buy her own stuff. And if her card gets lost or stolen, it's not directly connected to our bank account."

The Greenlight debit card can even be used internationally. As an added bonus, the card is linked to an app that features separate interfaces for both parents and kids. Parents log into an adult version of the app to establish various spending controls and to create real-time spending alerts. Kids on the other hand, can log into the app to monitor their debit card account balances.

Yet another approach to keeping souvenir spending under control is to give your kids cash at the beginning of the trip and explain that they will need to make the money last for the duration of the trip, using it to pay for any of the extras they want to buy.

"It's a great way to teach kids the value of money as well as the importance of really considering what they want to buy before spending the cash," says travel advisor Kristin Luz, founder of Family Travels and Adventures.

Eat-In

The accumulated cost of food and drinks on a vacation, particularly when traveling with a family, can be a budget buster.

Charles Kosman, who along with his wife Micki runs the family travel site TheBarefootNomad, suggests eating in whenever possible, whether that's at your vacation rental or a hotel room with a kitchenette.

"While it's fun to eat out and not worry about cooking, not to mention sampling local dishes, eating out every single day is a huge cost," says Kosman. "Save a few dollars by eating breakfasts in and keeping restaurant meals as a special treat that you can plan and look forward to." 

One of the benefits of preparing some meals on your own while on vacation is the experience of shopping for food in local supermarkets, which Kosman says is a good way to learn about different cultures and expose kids to the variety of food options available for sale in other parts of the country or the world.

Pack Your Own Snacks

This is a (survival) cost savings technique most parents adopt early during the child-rearing years. And traveling is no time to let this habit get rusty.

"Let's face it, we all get hungry when we travel and most breakdowns happen when kids (and adults) are 'hangry,'" says Maxwell. "If you have to spend money at the time of a meltdown, you might end up paying more money just to make the tantrum go away. Having snacks on hand means you'll never have to reach into your wallet to make the kids happy."

Book Tours and Activities Ahead of Time

Do your budget and your family a favor and research the tours and activities you'd like to participate in long before you embark on your vacation. And while you're at it, take the time to pay for these activities in advance as well, says Luz, of Family Travel and Adventures.

"Not only will the cost of the tours be paid for before you even travel, but if you have a tight budget, you can be sure to prioritize the activities your family really wants to do," says Luz.

Keri Baugh, creator the family travel blog Bon Voyage With Kids and mother to three children, offers similar advice. She suggests families select their "must-do" activities ahead of the trip and budget for them. If there's any money still available after the must-do items have been addressed, it can be used to pay for extras, which Baugh calls the "if we have money left" options. "This can help you avoid blowing your budget," adds Baugh.

Use Gift Cards

Here's a money hack that parents everywhere will want to take note of: Once you have your budget created, look for line items that can be paid for with a gift card. This tip is courtesy of Amy Rakes, a CPA and a travel agent who specializes in Disney vacations, and whose niche is helping people make their dream vacations affordable.

But why use gift cards to pay for vacation expenses you ask?

"You can often get discounts on specialty gift cards, which will allow your budget to stretch further," says Rakes, of Ways to Save Travel. "For example, using a debit or credit RedCard at Target or Target.com will give you an automatic 5 percent discount on gift cards like Disney, restaurants, and entertainment venues."

So, to be clear, you purchase a specialty gift card through Target that has a face value of perhaps $25, yet you won't actually pay $25 for that card when using your Target RedCard because the card provides a 5 percent discount on all purchases. Meaning, you just got free money.

"You can also find gift cards at a discounted rate on sites like Raise," continues Rakes. "Allocating your budget to gift cards is a modern version of an envelope method. But be deliberate when buying gift cards so you don't end up with too much money left over on a gift card you can't use at home."

Go On Free Days

Museums, parks, and even theatrical performances or plays often have free entry days, says Kosman, of The Barefoot Nomad. Find out when these days are and make the most of them during your family vacation.

"If you can plan or rearrange your visits to a few of those days, then you can save more money for other activities and help yourself stay on budget," explains Kosman. 

Track Spending

While having a budget helps guide your spending, going off budget now and then to incorporate special events can be the difference between just a good trip and an unforgettable trip. But if you're going to do this, have a plan, suggests Kosman.

"It's easy to overspend on special events, so it helps to track your spending," he explains. "We put almost everything on our credit card these days, since it's often cheaper than converting cash, and safer. Doing this also lets us know exactly where our money is going and if we're staying on budget." 

To track your spending, you can use an old-fashioned notebook, or an app like Trail Wallet (or the Trabee Pocket

Hang Out at the Pool 

It's easy to become so focused on seeing every single thing on your must-see list that you forget to slow down and simply relax.

"When you travel with a family, if anyone is tired and cranky, the entire group suffers," says Kosman. "Not only is an unscheduled pool day, or simply a relaxed day depending on what facilities are available to you, a great way to recharge the batteries and reflect on the things you've already seen together, but it's also a great way to get your daily budget back on track by eliminating an expensive outing."

And as parents everywhere can attest, there's a good chance your kids will remember the pool more than an extra cathedral or work of art.

Explore On Your Own 

One of the best parts of a family vacation is the quality time spent together away from electronics, and the myriad distractions of everyday life. Take this quality time to the next level and save money while you're at it by opting to skip the guided tours and explore new places on your own as a family.

"When you take a tour with a group, you're often paying a premium for someone to guide you around," says Kosman. While some tours are wonderful experiences—they can also be costly, especially for an entire family. Renting your own car, jumping on a local bus, or even hiring your own cab for an impromptu sightseeing trip is often much cheaper per person than a guided tour."

Even better, when you explore independently, your family can spend more time in places that are of interest to your brood, and less time in expensive tourist shops or places that don't align with your family's passions.